MES lecture features scientist’s story of helping assess toxic river spill
In the first lecture of the Spring 2016 Museum of the Earth Sciences (MES) Lecture Series on Feb. 2 in the Bonnie Auditorium, Madeline Schreiber, professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech, described the contribution of science to helping recover from an environmental crisis.
Speaking on the second anniversary of the toxic Dan River coal ash spill, Schreiber detailed the value of scientific analysis and problem-solving as she helped assess and mitigate the impact of the spill on the river's environment and water quality.
Her presentation, to more than 60 Radford students and faculty, recounted her role in the rapid crisis response to the 2014 incident in which a storm water pipe leaked water and coal ash from a Duke Energy storage pond into the river that criss-crosses Virginia and North Carolina. An estimated 23 million gallons of water and 39,000 tons of coal ash flowed in the river before the leak was stopped.
"In terms of volume, this is the third largest coal ash spill recorded in the history of the United States," said Schreiber. "It's a significant event."
Eventually, the leak was stopped and the storm water flow closed off, but large amounts of coal ash polluted the water. In total, about 3,000 tons of coal ash were removed from the river, leaving at least 36,000 tons of coal ash behind, said Schreiber.
"The spill may have many potential threats to the water quality, ecosystems, natural resources, wetland habitats and organisms," said Schreiber.
Schreiber joined representatives of government agencies such as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to sample the fouled water. Schreiber's efforts were aided by a National Science Foundation RAPID program.
"State and federal agencies are concerned with regulatory limits and human health," said Schreiber. "Scientists are concerned with the process. We can develop methods for evaluating and cleaning up spills and devise new monitoring tools to help prevent future spills."
As part of Schreiber's team’s efforts, they developed a way to track the remaining coal in the river by focusing the chemical element germanium as a tracer of the remaining ash in the river. Samples collected near pond discharges contained large amounts of it and other elements such as arsenic and selenium.
While these trace elements were found in high concentrations along the ponds, they were diluted in the river. The dilution means the water quality of the Dan River still meets EPA standards for water quality, but residents are warned not consume its fish.
Many scientists and environmentalists, including Dr. Schreiber, believe it will take years to determine the spill's long-term impact on the river. It is possible, according to Schreiber, that toxic trace elements such as arsenic could become concentrated in fish and birds.